Monday 21 October 2013

Sheila Graham on WCG

A woman's perspective was always a difficult thing to find in the old Worldwide Church of God.

Long years, and I suspect entire decades would fly past without a woman's name appearing as a byline in such church publications as The Plain Truth, The Good News or Tomorrow's World.

Even when the topic being addressed was women, it was invariably a member of the male gender who was commissioned to write the piece - and often prime examples of aging misogyny.

I once stumbled on an early, rare exception in what was probably a 1950s issue of The Good News. The writer was Isabel Hoeh, wife of evangelist Herman, and her contribution consisted of - and how predictable was this - recipes for the Days of Unleavened Bread.

But even in the the most repressive, role-stereotypical sect, there are usually remarkable and influential women to be found, even if only a handful, who wield great influence. Studies in Mormonism demonstrate the power of an undeclared matriarchy that, even in polygamous times, exerted unexpected influence over high status males.

What was notable in WCG however was how very few 'strong women' were apparent. Who would you nominate, apart from Loma Armstrong and Ramona Martin, the wives of Herbert W. Armstrong?

The announced purpose of Sheila Graham's recently released book, From Fear to Faith, is to provide a window on women's experiences in this unique sectarian movement.

Mrs. Graham is well qualified to do this as a longstanding, well-connected member, familiar with many of the leading lights in the WCG over many years. She has actively attempted to elicit stories and personal experiences from women in the church, both those who like her stayed through the transition to Grace Communion International, and others who moved on or out.

I've never met Sheila Graham, but have always admired her obvious tenacity. Once on the old Ambassador Watch site I suggested, somewhat tongue in cheek, that she'd have made an excellent replacement for Pastor General Joe Jr., if only he could be prised from his well-padded throne. Not that there was the faintest chance of that happening, but one can always dream. On reflection I think she would have been ideal for the task as a person capable of empathy and humility, qualities that are not exactly a strong suit among church leaders.

Whether Mrs. Graham has entirely succeeded in producing the book she intended, I'm not quite sure. Despite an energetic campaign to bring on board a variety of women's voices, far fewer seem to have stepped up to the mark than might have been hoped for. But this is a minor quibble. Why?

Well, this is the first book by a significant female figure in the movement's history. If I'm any judge, it's a carefully balanced account that strives to be both objective and respectful to all concerned. At times this means that it lacks a certain sharp edge, but I'm not complaining. A lack of cutting invective makes a refreshing change - and I've been known for a bit of unnecessarily cutting invective myself from time to time.

The book is all the stronger for Sheila Graham's own personal anecdotes of life as a single mother in a body that paid little attention to women in general, let alone those it deemed marginal. That Mrs. Graham has chosen to remain in GCI shouldn't be an issue for those of us who chose differently; what is important is that she has chosen, as we all have, and done so with integrity and honesty. The destination, as they say, is not as important as the journey.

From Fear to Faith is available only as an ebook. This ensures that it can be downloaded for next to nothing (0.99c).

And download it you probably should. Even though its target market is women (I mean, with that cover could it imply anything else!?) blokes could well profit from a sneaky read as well. Sheila Graham's perspective is a long overdue one that everyone with a WCG background, both women and men, should be willing to hear and to learn from.

From Fear to Faith (Kindle edition)

Beginning of the End

The previous post about the book with the above title has been withdrawn until it can be rewritten. It seems there's more than one Michael Snyder out there, and I had incorrectly identified the author of this bit of trash as the UCG's eminently more reasonable writer of the same name. My apologies over the confusion.

Friday 11 October 2013

Truth beyond beliefs

Recently I've exchanged correspondence with a American gentleman who was an early, active and constructive force in the transition process within our shared sectarian heritage. Neither of us have remained there, but his current understanding tends toward a more traditional appreciation of Christian belief. He noted:

To be direct:  I think we are coming at events from different world views these days (I largely view secular humanism and methodological naturalism as both shallow and self-refuting)...

My response:

I ... remain convinced that purpose and directionality are basic to the universe, but find the Bible descriptive in a bottom-up sense rather than prescriptive in a top-down sense.

That's a pretty darn clumsy way to say whatever it was that I was trying to say, so my correspondent thought he might help me out:

You mention purpose and directionality, and I wonder if you are a theist at all.  Perhaps agnosticism would be an alternative.

So here I am, pondering a further response. I don't like labels. Labels are, as the saying goes, disabling. And once you've attached one it's also a devil of a job to remove it when it's outlived its usefulness. I certainly have my doubts about theism, but so surely does any sane individual, at least part of the time. Theism is as much about Zeus or Odin as it is about Yahweh. In fact theism raises a whole lot more questions than it solves. Agnosticism is a relatively modern term (1869) that often reflects lazy thinking. We're all agnostic about some things, but on others we are all likewise prepared to take a leap of faith. We simply differ in which things we put in which categories.

Then I ran across these words quite by accident... or perhaps serendipity:

Humble in the face of a spiritual reality whose essence we cannot 'know', we speak in metaphors. Our 'truth' is a truth of the heart no less than of the mind. The 'facts' we assert are those of the hopeful spirit.

These wise words are found in the introduction to the Reform Jewish prayer book, Gates of Prayer.

Humility, metaphor and the hopeful spirit. That about says it in any tradition.

Perhaps those of us who are Christians struggling under the garrulous burden of propositional dogma, might wish to whisper a quiet 'amen' of our own.

Wednesday 9 October 2013

Wading In

A preliminary mention of Wade Fransson's book People of the Sign. Fransson is one of the many ex-WCG ministers out there, still blinking in the sunlight after losing their income stream in the breakup of the church. His book is largely autobiographical, but where he now stands on matters of belief is a bit of a mystery, as he is being deliberately coy prior to the release of a second book that continues to chart his journey after walking away in the mid-90s. In fact, it may be that there's ultimately a trilogy here.

Unlikely as it seems, the first book has apparently been more successful than anticipated. Fransson has been doing the rounds on radio talk shows in the States, Bob Thiel style, for months (though judging from the podcast I heard, not exactly NPR quality.) However the fact that Henry Sturcke was willing to write a brief complimentery foreward has to be something of a recommendation.

No I haven't read it yet, but it's on the "to do" list, so it's likely I'll be pounding the keyboard on this again. All I can say at the moment is that the publicity is slick, Wade sounds glib in his interviews (didn't Spokesman Clubs do wonders!), and I'm hopeful, if not yet convinced, that he falls into the minority of ex-WCG ministers who have become genuine, decent, non-manipulative people.

People of the Sign - Kindle edition
People of the Sign - paperback edition

Galatians through Adventist Eyes

I recently ran across that most unusual of texts, a treatment of Galatians by an Adventist scholar. Galatians is, of course, the famously "law free" epistle in the New Testament and Adventists are, well, famously pro-law.

The author Carl Cosaert, is a man of some apparent erudition holding, as he does, "his doctoral degree in New Testament and Early Christianity." Moreover Dr. Cosaert is currently a professor of biblical studies at Walla Walla University. The book, Galatians: A Fiery Response to a Struggling Church, is published by Review and Herald, which makes it as close to an officially endorsed volume as you can get. Surely this has to be, I mused, more than the usual thin gruel of Adventist apologetic, right?

So, how does a good Seventh-day Adventist with academic 'cred' make sense of this troublesome epistle?

And the devil sat on my shoulder and whispered, "let's find out!"

So, here is the first in a short series of observations on Cosaert's book as the adventure (yeah, I know, I have a truly sad concept of what constitutes an adventure) proceeds.


To begin with the good doctor sets out "to spend a little time considering the man behind the letter." (p.8) The first thing that struck me, right there on the very first page, is that he credits all 13 of the letters attributed to Paul as genuine.
"... inspiring him to write at least 13 letters that today make up almost half of the books in the New Testament." (p.8)

At least??

Later he writes:
"While some of Paul's letters have vanished (cf. Col. 4:16), 13 survive in the New Testament." (p.20)

I expect the irony of quoting the Deutero-Pauline book of Colossians as a proof text source on this subject wouldn't have occured to Dr. Cosaert, but interestingly, only a page later he writes of "each of the letters attributed to him" (emphasis added), so one suspects he wasn't sleeping through all of the 100-level New Testament papers he took. Of course fundamentalists continue to insist, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that Paul wrote the Pastoral letters, Colossians, Ephesians and 2 Thessalonians. By then again, they would, wouldn't they. Any hope that Dr. Cosaert might stand tall on this issue is dashed at the outset.

Another interesting quote about the faith of the earliest followers of Jesus.
"They claimed not only that Jesus was the promised Messiah and the true center of the Jewish faith, but also that He was God incarnate..." (p.13)

Now that's news. Paul in his pre-conversion fulminations was upset by a suitably proto-Nicean high Christology?

The other big issue for Cosaert is the nasty suggestion that the book of Acts might not be a reliable source for a reconstruction of Paul's life, and so he engages in a fairly weak-kneed defence.  His argumentation seems completely unclouded by the work of Knox (Chapters in a Life of Paul) or any of those who have followed him with meticulous analysis. At most he is willing to concede that putting together a chronology from Acts and the Pauline letters (all 13 of them!) is a tad difficult (p.11).

Much of the second chapter is given over to a homiletic word study around the terms "grace and peace" used in the Pauline introduction. I guess it helps pad out a few pages, but so far it's all pretty underwhelming. But who knows what wonders lie in chapter 3 and beyond... stay tuned.

Galatians (Cosaert) - Kindle edition 
Galatians (Cosaert) - Paperback edition

Monday 7 October 2013

Cheshire Cats and Churches

`All right,' said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.

`Well! I've often seen a cat without a grin,' thought Alice; `but a grin without a cat! It's the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!'

Fading away. That seems the reality for traditional churches in the secular West.

America is a bit different. But even in the land of high octane televangelism the trend is undeniable. What to do, what to do...

Over at John Petty's Progressive Involvement blog there's a piece about decline among ELCA Lutherans (and I guess, by extension, among other Protestant bodies). It's an intriguing piece in that John isn't panicking. In fact, despite the stats, John maintains that things are not too bad.

The reasons highlighted for the drop in numbers are:
  • lower birthrates among affluent Protestants.
  • the flow on effect from 9/11 and the child abuse scandal in the Catholic church.
  • reaction against the religious right.
And that's got to be part of the deal, particularly in the US.

But down here at the bottom of the Pacific the decline of mainline denominations is even more pronounced. Here the vile religious right has never had the undue influence it has had in America. Here we didn't experience 9/11 as a direct attack on our very identity.

Lower birthrates are certainly a factor in Australia and New Zealand, but I reflect that, of those fine young folk who posed with shining faces for their confirmation class photo in the year I officially became a member at St. Matthew's in Hamilton, there are - to the best of my knowledge - no 'survivors'. Not a one. 

Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians - dropping (demographically) like flies! Some few may cross over into the happy-clappy fringe churches, but most quietly adjust to life with a relaxed Sunday brunch and no frenzied rush to warm a pew.

John concludes: "We are in decline numerically, and for a host of understandable reasons.  We are not in decline as a body of Christians involved in mission.  In fact, on that score, you could argue that we are better than ever."

That's optimistic, but I'm not sure it's realistic, but whatever your view it's an excellent piece of writing. Read the post for yourself and see if you're convinced.

(Apologies for the bad link in the final paragraph, now fixed!)

Sunday 6 October 2013

Cults and Closets

As time has gone on, a number of first person accounts have appeared written by well-placed former members of the religious 'empire' once ruled over by ad-man turned apostle, Herbert W. Armstrong.

Two fairly recent examples have been John Morgan's Flying Free and Ben Mitchell's The Last Great Day. Ben Mitchell is the son of an Australian minister while John Morgan's brother, Rex, continues to this very day (as far as I know) to manage what remains of the Worldwide Church of God in New Zealand.

Now there's a new autobiographical account by Troy Fitzgerald, son of a former US-based WCG minister. Like the others, this is a fascinating account for those of us who have 'done time' in the gulag. Fascinating in this case, not because it brings any new information to light about the church, but because it details a raw and brutally honest personal perspective. It's far from an academic treatment (for that you can't go past David Barrett's Fragmenation of a Sect), nor is there much pretense of objectivity. This is one man's story, looking back over his life, and dealing with religion, sexuality and business. But if you have problems with the thought of a gay man, formerly married with kids, baring his soul, then be warned in advance.

In general the book follows a threefold pattern; Troy's early years under the grip of a demanding religion, the growing awareness of his sexual identity as he came of age and the subsequent choices made, and finally the attempt to find a viable vocation in the economically turbulent period we currently live in. The three themes are, however, also intertwined throughout the book.

Coming of age is rarely easy in the best of circumstances, but particularly fraught for those with same sex attractions. Add to this the overwhelming pressure to conform as a pastor's kid in a rigid, monolithic and repressive church, and the conundrums simply multiply. Troy attempts to shift much of the blame on to the "sociopathic" staff at Ambassador College and their influence, but this seems a simplistic evasion of the responsibility those students had who willingly knuckled under in order to achieve ministerial rank.

Two ex-WCG websites have already recommended Cults and Closets, but I must admit to having some apprehension before downloading the Kindle edition. Overall I needn't have worried.

There isn't a book yet written that wouldn't benefit from the skills of a professional editor, and this one is definitely no exception. While the book rings true, there are simple proof reading errors, and Fitzgerald lapses into self indulgence on more than one occasion, notably when discussing his childhood relationship with his father, and falls for the temptation to preachiness, free advice and aphorisms, particularly in the last chapters.

The author seems genuinely intent on forgiving and forgetting the past, and yet he also seems unable to let go. In this he certainly wouldn't be alone, and hopefully writing this book has both helped him and will help others who have had (or know others who have had) a similar journey.

Cults and Closets - paperback edition
Cults and Closets - Kindle edition

Thursday 3 October 2013

Weetbix Evangelism

In the mailbox today, an eight page tabloid promotional from "Discovery News" trumpeting a series of free presentations down the road in the town hall - all about the Bible.

And it's big news brethren! The real Mount Sinai has been found. Not only that, those sulphurous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah have been identified!

But wait, there's more. Careful analysis has revealed the remains of a Roman seal on the tomb of Joseph of Aramathea. But the really big story is that Pharaohs' chariots have been found encased in coral at the bottom of the Red Sea.

Are we all excited yet?

Nowhere on the advertising material does it say just who is sponsoring this nonsense, but it does name the presenters. Ross Patterson "has been involved in freelance Middle Eastern research... since 1999." And Greg Timmins is "an international speaker" from our area (the Franklin district in Auckland's south). Hoo boy, talk about qualified!

Now it took no longer than a split second to deduce that the Seventh-day Adventists were behind this, given the kitschy artwork and articles titled "Bible Prophecy: Evidence that God Knows the Future", and "Decoding the Apocalypse."

There's a lot to like about the SDAs. Weetbix for example. And anti-smoking programmes (do they still run those?) But when it comes to insightful understanding of the Bible, well, this is a denomination that still seems firmly stuck back in the nineteenth century, caught in a loop with issues that have long since faded into well-deserved obscurity.

Just to be sure I had the measure of the junk mail, I checked out the web address on the masthead. Yup, SDA. And guess whose work they're using to aid and abet them in their dramatic claims.

Pseudoarchaeologist and fellow SDA Ron Wyatt.

I had a GP once who graduated from Loma Linda (it said so on the framed certificate on the wall of his consulting room), and he seemed both personable and competent. But medical qualifications are one thing and biblical scholarship is another.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but Ross Patterson is an enthusiastic apologetics buff, an amateur hobbyist and not in any sense a qualified archaeologist. He is, I suspect, a nice guy, totally sincere, who stands in the venerable "Bible in one hand, spade in the other" tradition. And Greg is probably a local SDA pastor.

And that's nice. But it hardly adds credibility to these outrageous claims. Credibility comes when you cite sources, something the tabloid fails utterly to do. Credibility comes with peer reviewed research. A couple of glib but gloriously underqualified motivational speakers trawling for credulous converts hardly counts.

Especially when the name Ron Wyatt crops up on their website.

Sorry lads, epic fail.